Phrases like "all-new" or "all-different" get bandied around a lot in comic book marketing. It's the sort of catchy slogan that publishers hope will attract readers as they relaunch or reboot a well-known franchise. While Ultimate Comics Spider-Man marks a bold departure from the old, and the titular character offers some new surprises for old readers, long-time fans will feel right at home with the book. There is a sense of vibrancy to the proceedings as Marvel Comics ushers in a brand new Spider-Man, but also a welcome familiarity. It is the perfect jumping on point for new readers and hardcore web-heads.
The Ultimate Universe, launched in 2000, is a departure from the mainstream Marvel Universe and works as a reimagining and updating of Marvel's core classics. An alternate universe of sorts, it's taken some of the company's best-known franchises, like Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Avengers (known as The Ultimates in this line), and freed them of decades of convoluted history and continuity. Readers were reintroduced to familiar characters, but ones that had been updated and revised for the modern 21st-century world.
For much of its run, Ultimate Spider-Man was one of the best books Marvel was putting on store shelves. The credit goes to writer Brian Michael Bendis, who has demonstrated time and again that he has a natural ear for dialogue and character development. Over the course of more than 10 years, he turned teenage superhero Peter Parker and the surrounding cast of characters, like Mary Jane Watson and Aunt May, into fully realized people the audience could care about. While many came for the super-heroics of the famed wall-crawler, most stuck around for the human drama that unfolded and spiraled out of control while Parker was out of costume.
In June 2011, Bendis stunned readers with "The Death of Spider-Man," which, as that story arc's title promised, killed off Parker. After 160 issues, Ultimate Spider-Man came to an end and ushered in a new era for Marvel's Ultimate Universe.
Although Parker was dead, it was clear from the outset that the legacy of Spider-Man would survive and thrive. Soon after, Bendis introduced readers to the "all-new" Spider-Man, Miles Morales. Many fans were eager to see what Bendis had in store for them, while others were leery, or flat-out cynical, of yet another well-publicized comic book death. It even attracted its share of controversy and bigotry as right-wing pundits called the death of the white Peter Parker and his replacement by the half-Hispanic, half-black Morales a game of "political correctness."
The introduction of Morales was heavily hyped, despite the narrow-mindedness of those critical or fearful of diversity. As is the habit of Spider-Man, the book was able to climb above it all and meet the challenge head-on. Bendis delivered a new, invigorating take on the superhero legend, just as he had a decade prior.
Morales is a far cry from Parker on a number of levels--his powers are different, but still decidedly arachnid, as are his supporting cast. His lovably geeky best friend Ganke is a fun component, and the dramatic stakes are upped to a greater degree as a result of the different family dynamics. Morales comes from an intact family (whereas Parker was raised by his aunt after the death of his parents), but faces unique challenges surrounding the turbulent relationship of his father and an uncle on the wrong side of the law. Rather than embracing his developing spider powers as Parker did, Morales is afraid and wants nothing to do with them. While Parker was web-slinging his way around New York City, Morales was determined to stay hidden, opting, largely, to ignore the ways in which he was changing. Ultimately, the death of Peter Parker becomes the catalyst Morales needs to become a hero.
While Bendis' dialogue is largely responsible for the personality of his characters, when it comes to the reader's acceptance of Miles Morales and his burgeoning powers much is owed to Italian artist Sara Pichelli. Her art is a clean combination of hand-drawn and digital renderings, and the final pages are beautiful, and wonderfully expressive. While we get a sense of his hesitancy to become the new Spider-Man through the conversations he has, it's Pichelli who truly sells the emotions and allows readers to feel the fear and wonder that Miles is experiencing. With this volume, she has set in stone the look and feel for the relaunch of a new Spider-Man and has become the artist that defines who Miles Morales is. Her design of the wall-crawler's costume is both new and instantly familiar, retaining some of the classic design elements, like the large white eyes and the web patterns, while making the overall look sensible and cogent. It's a terrific costume that matches the aesthetic of the character and the universe he inhabits quite well.
Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man collects the first five issues of the monthly comic in hardcover format. As a decompressed origin story, it's easily accessible for readers new and old, regardless of their familiarity with the Ultimate Universe. Although the era of Peter Parker is over, it's just beginning for Miles Morales as the legacy of Spider-Man lives on.
Reviewed by Michael Hicks